Chapter 37: Candles, waves and truffle cakes


March 29, 2014

We’re on a connecting flight to Thiruvananthapuram, and it’s a very long one—6 hours. After the wearing off of the initial excitement at being in a new place with ever newer things to experience, Hasan has dozed off. The first two hours have been mostly peaceful, but now he wakes. We still have 2 more hours to go before we switch flights in Mumbai, and then two hours from there to our destination.

I’d come prepared for this, of course. The baby-bag is filled with new toys and picture books purchased especially to be sprung as surprises at just the right moment. What I hadn’t come prepared for is the level of possessiveness my baby has inherited from me. Not for the toys, no. For his dad.

Boys are usually seen to be more attached to their moms. My boy is an exception. Much before he set his tiny foot in this world, much before his tiny eyes opened to perceive his father’s face, my boy was responding to the sound of his father’s voice.

Scientifically speaking, babies in the womb begin to hear and respond to sounds as early as the second trimester. Initially they only detect low pitched sounds, so the earliest sounds your little one recognises are the grumbling in your belly, the whooshing of air in and out your lungs and yes, your heartbeat. There’s something so warm and gooey about learning that the first thing your baby learns is the sound of his momma’s beating heart.

By the time the little one reaches the third trimester, he can already recognise your voice and begin listening to things you say, read and sing to him. (Hence the recommendations to read out verses from the Holy Book.) But equally important, he can also hear other sounds from the environment, particularly ones that are loud and clear.  Studies of newborn behaviour have shown that babies get used to the sounds they hear often in the womb, and once born, respond more alertly and attentively to those.

But I can solemnly swear that my baby has responded to voices other than mine even before he was born.

Ever since we started feeling the movements in my belly, Sajjad and I noticed how hyper-active the kid was, kicking away with aplomb. Sometimes I’d feel four simultaneous kicks at once and we’d wonder how he was managing to bang on the “walls” with both hands and both feet. Sajjad would jokingly wonder if he was “constructing something” inside! Over time, though, I began to sense a strange pattern to the hyperactivity. It would occur mostly in the presence of his dad. The little guy’s movements would be steady and rhythmic throughout the day, but come evening and as soon as the big guy entered and greeted me with his deep, gruff baritone, the movements would go into joyous overdrive. Like a playful kitten frisking around with happiness, Little Hasan In The Womb would literally turn summersaults at the sound of his father’s voice.

I do suspect that my own excessive, obsessive attachment to his dad played no small role in this development.

One way or another, Little Hasan In The Womb developed an umbilical connect not just with his momma but with his baba, too. A connect that only grew stronger out of the womb; a connect that enthralled and fascinated me.

And later, also irritated me.

Right now on our plane to Kerala, every time I try to get comfortable and snuggle into his dad’s shoulder, he pushes my head off. When I give up the shoulder approach and content myself with holding his dad’s hand, he pushes my hand away too! We’re amazed at first, and infinitely amused.

Somewhere in my heart I know where he gets this from.

Parents hardly ever realise the things they pass on to their kids. Not just hair colour, eye colour, height or build, not even susceptibility to hereditary diseases. Parents pass on, inherently, unknowingly, traits they wouldn’t perhaps even acknowledge in themselves. Perhaps a bit of strong-headedness, a bit of over-attachment. A bit of greedy loving, with attention-seeking thrown in for good measure.

He may look like his dad, but his stubbornness is all mine.

Ultimately, though, there’s only so much amusement to be had in being prevented from holding your own husband’s hand on a holiday that you created, for your own benefit. But you sure can’t reason with a one-year-old, and I sigh and let him have dad all to himself. And occupy myself with gazing out the window.

Thirty minutes later, Hasan has decided aeroplane time is over. He reaches over to the window, begins feeling it around with his little fists and suddenly demands:

“Darwaza kholo! Baahar jaana hai!”

We chuckle. As do people sitting around us. For the poor kid, though, the situation is far from humorous, and he repeats his plea with increased urgency.

Open the door! Want to go out!

We try, in vain of course, to explain slowly that we’re way up in the sky—showing him clouds up ahead, and trees way down below. Yes, I know, he’s only one year old, for goodness sake, but you always need to try, right? Doesn’t mean trying always works.

The next two hours until we reach Mumbai, and then another two hours till we reach Trivandrum, are peppered with frequent remonstrations and tantrums to open the ‘door’ followed by frenetic efforts to involve him in picture books and musical toys.  It takes quite an effort to remember, as we finally descend from the airplane onto the tarmac, that we’re here on holiday. Seems like a battle mission instead, where you end up dropping dead from sheer exhaustion.

4:30 p.m.

Exhaustion makes way for elation as we descend from the Mercedes Minibus that brought in all of The Leela’s guests from the airport, and make a grand entry into coastal opulence.

The Leela Kovalam, here we are.

Leela 2

I’ve experienced some extremely gorgeous five star hotels and coastal resorts in my life, among them The Marriott at Dead Sea, Jordan,  Movenpick Resort at Aqaba— Jordan again; the Trident at Jaipur, and The Leela’s own luxuriant property at Goa. And yet, I fell for The Leela Kovalam at first sight, and fell hard. The resort possesses all the quaint charm of a mermaid home atop a cliff, elevated from its surroundings and wreathed in the ocean’s embrace.

Leela on the cliff

Our first glimpse of Kerala’s coastline had been on way to the hotel when the ocean suddenly burst into sight with a simple left turn, and welcomed us with rows upon rows of fishing boats rocking gently along the shore.

The Ocean is symphony to my soul. Passionate, unruly waves pull me towards them with all the enigmatic power of a lover from a previous incarnation. Every time I face the ocean its roar reverberates in every pore of my body,creating an inexplicable urge to walk straight ahead into the depths, savouring the feeling of being slowly submerged until I am no more separate from it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing suicidal about this. It’s an ancient, primeval mating urge, the desire to be destroyed only to unite with your lover—what the Sufi would term ‘fanaa’.

The ocean accompanies us all the way to the hotel and inside it, because The Leela’s most fascinating trait is its ability to bring the outside in. From the lobby to the restaurant, the infinity pool and everything in between, everywhere you look, the ocean is there for you to behold. You can’t step around in here without being conscious of the ocean’s massive embrace, and to top it all, our accommodation is the gorgeous Beach View Suite with its spectacular view, framed by blooming bougainvillea on the balcony.

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One look outside and I have forgotten the annoyance of the past 6 hours. Most literary descriptions of Heaven and Eden depict mountains, fruit orchards and flowing rivers. But if ever there’s going to be a Paradise for me, it would never be one that lacks an ocean.

———————–

7:00 p.m

After the calm, the storm

Back in Battle. The son decided, within about 30 minutes of arriving in the room, that he was in ‘displeased monarch’ mode, which would be kept on for another hour or so. Tantrums accompanied by non-stop wailing and of course, woe betide the woman that dares come close to his father! (He seems to have completely inherited his grandfather’s dislike for romantic displays.) Had I not got my hair cut right before this vacation, I think I might have pulled it all out in sheer desperation.

My sister in law calls to wish me Happy Birthday, and I am beside myself with indignation. Happy Birthday, indeed!

“Oh come on!”  I rant into the phone. “It’s been a whole 6 hour flight full of wailing and tantrums, and a lot more of it since we arrived. I think I’ve just laid a whole lot of my hard-earned money to waste…!”

She laughs at my comic indignation, while my attention is briefly diverted by the sound of the bell ringing at the door. Sajjad goes ahead to open it. Just as I am opening my mouth to rant further into the phone, a brilliant bouquet of blooming red roses appears before my eyes. Followed by a totally tempting, small but shiny glazed black truffle cake.

Everything else is forgotten.

I had asked for the cake in advance, but the roses are unexpected. I’ve just been given a birthday surprise by the hotel staff. Now that’s a first! I wrap up the call pronto, and we’re ready to celebrate.

The sight of the flowers and cake have calmed the kid and he watches, fascinated, as his dad lights up the candles. And then we all bask in the warm glow together.

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8 p.m.

Time to head down to the restaurant for dinner. As we step out from the elevator, an incredible sight awaits us: the entire lobby shimmers in whispering fairy light. Corridors, corners, niches all decked with floating candles casting glorious shadows, making you want to talk in hushed tones or just sit and sigh.

In a minute, we find out the reason for the hotel’s innovative lighting: they’re observing Earth Hour tonight. By delicious cosmic coincidence, on my birthday night.

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We move toward the restaurant and take a seat just by the pool, looking over farther onto the ocean, pitch black now. It’s an unbelievably lovely night.

I’m ravenous, and just as we are about to begin eating, the displeased monarch decides he would rather stand in the lobby watching candles. No problem, we tell him, go watch the candles and we’re watching you from here—our seat is at the very entrance and we’d have a good view of him. But wouldn’t you just know it, mumma MUST stand there in the lobby too, he insists. I do stand there with him for a few minutes in the flickering lights. But we can’t stand there endlessly, which is precisely what the little boy has decided. And he unleashes his determined wail, throwing yet another tantrum for mumma to keep standing there with him, watching candles for as long as he wants.

After one whole day of non-stop tantrums, I have reached the edge of my patience. Here I am, all the way from Aligarh, sitting beside a glorious pool in a splendid hotel, with the most scrumptious spread awaiting me in the most romantic ambience possible. And beyond that, much beyond that, I have a chance to share this blissful evening that I’ve fantasised about all my life, with the man I have so desperately yearned for all these months. And it’s being ruined completely.

Sajjad has been trying to assuage the little one, all in vain, and now he takes one look at my clenched teeth and gobbles down whatever’s on his plate, swoops up the bawling boy in his arms, and takes him away from the table. They stay a few moments in the lobby, and then turn a corner, and disappear. I’m left at the table to finish my dinner in peace. At least, I’m sure that’s what Sajjad had in mind by taking the boy away from here. But all of a sudden every morsel is bitter and my mouth is filled with an acrid taste.

I am alone again. After all these months of loneliness, bitterness and coping with a headstrong child, every new second tests my patience, every new moment spent alone pulls at my anger strings. I am suddenly reminded of all the reasons why I didn’t want a baby so soon. I’m reminded of our neighbour whose anniversary dinner was ruined by her bawling son. The bitter Mrs Hyde in me simmers dangerously close to the surface.

I gaze at the candle flickering on my table, at the faintly glimmering pool, and beyond that, at the ocean as black as the sky, flecked by slivers of moonlight.

Suddenly I remember the promise I made to myself: I will make this day fabulous, no matter what.

And I have. I made this day fabulous by deciding to come here, I made it fabulous by bringing my family here—here beside the ocean, here amid the candles. And Sajjad—he made it fabulous, too. He made it fabulous by his very presence.

The universe itself has made this fabulous, by soaking everything in the radiance of a thousand flames dancing together.

No, I will not ruin this by my anger, by the piling up of months of negativity. And if I’m dining alone, I will be happy alone.

I tilt my head back on the chair, close my eyes, take a deep breath. And smile.

“Happy Birthday girl,” I tell myself. “You did it.”

Candle light dinner

Chapter 36: How to create happiness —Part I


Kathi Ostrom, one of my favorite bloggers, makes an incredible statement in one of her posts, and in a very offhand manner. 

“In the past, knowing I couldn’t change my home, my job, my husband or my kids, I’d typically cut my hair… Cutting my hair might not have always been the best way to…shake things up but at least it felt like I’d done a little something.”

I wonder, Kathi, if it’s just you and me?

February 18, 2014

In a little over a month now, I’ll be completing another year on this planet. No matter how indifferent you might claim to be, growing a year older—a year wiser, a year deeper into life—definitely calls for some celebration. But as you might have guessed, I’m in no celebratory mood.

I’m getting way too predictable, aren’t I—and tiring too, because I’ve hit the pause button on life and there’s only so much that can be said about being stuck.

And so, like Kathi, I have decided to change the one thing that I can surely change right now.

Snip-snip-snip.

And there goes the hair.

From all the way down my back to merely brushing my arms, I’ve decimated my treasure by half, trading length for a fresh and fancy style. But it worked. I feel better already, newer and different somehow. Seems like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders—quite literally—and I feel happy.

Suddenly, I know what I want for my birthday. And I don’t need a fairy godmother to get it.

I’m going to gift myself a birthday fiesta.

In Kovalam, Kerala.

kovalam

A trip to Coastal Kerala has been my dream vacation for a long time now. Actually, make that one of the many, many dream vacations I keep conjuring in my travel-crazed head. In a world that seems a lifetime away now, Sajjad and I had been saving up for a really fancy holiday in Kerala, at the super expensive The Leela Kovalam. That dream trickled far down the garden path, though, as the world in all its wickedness tipped up and drained the savings away. But that was almost two years ago.  I’m earning my own money again and a quick calculation reveals that I have saved more than enough to gift myself a birthday vacation. I wanted to see the Kovalam Beach, and see it I will. With or without Sajjad. I can take my mom and sister with me, just the way we used to go in the early days.

But even as I think this last thought, the smile in my head droops at the corners…

In truth what I want more than anything is for us to do this together. But alright, I’m not going to get hung up on this. If we can’t be together, then I’ll do it for myself and myself alone.

I do know, though, that Sajjad would have plans of flying over to India for my birthday. He is the kind of man, that rare species of male, who doesn’t have to be reminded about birthdays and anniversaries.

“Are you coming over in March?” I ask him during one of our phone calls.

“Hmm..I think so…” he says slowly.

“Well, you’re going to take us with you THIS time. If you can’t, don’t come over at all.”

There’s a pause.

“Okay then…” slowly, sighing wearily, “I won’t come over at all.” His voice sounds far away, tired.

I sigh. It was worth a shot anyway.

“So… I have decided to go to Kerala for my birthday. You want to come?”

“Kerala?”

“Yes— Kovalam. Like we had planned, you remember? You can come with me if you want to.” I’m giving him a choice. Asking. Not begging, not insisting. I want to show him I can be happy alone. Not that he was the one who wanted me to be alone in the first place. But he is the one who left me alone, and I have had enough. “I’ll pay for the trip, of course,” I add breezily, pointing out, again, that I was self-sufficient.

“Hmm.” That word again. “I’ll come.”

Despite my demonstrations of indifference, my spirit surges.

“We can split the bill, you know.” He suggests.

“Okay…” I chew my lip. “You take the airfare; I’ll take the hotel tariff.” I keep the larger share for myself because the choice of super-expensive hotel has been mine.

“Okay.”

His words are slow, quiet, not entirely… how shall I put it… enthusiastic? For years upon years, I have spent many a day and night trying to fathom this man’s mind, trying to work out the complexities and contradictions residing within him, and failed a million times. For all the intimacy, the friendship and the warmth we share, so much of him is still a stranger to me.

And they say women are hard to figure out.

I spend a few moments wondering about his moroseness, recalling the wonderful moments in the past that were ruined by his unexplained brooding where he withdrew into his shell and refused to let anyone in. Or even to let them know what it was about.

And then I make a decision. I will not let any brooding, any anger, any moroseness ruin this one. This is for me and me alone. I will go out there and enjoy myself, the whole world be damned. And if this makes me selfish, so be it.

And so, after a long while, I begin to feel excited again. And straightaway get to work. Planning the trip, booking the hotel, marking out activities to be done and sights to be enjoyed. And when I book our room at The Leela Kovalam, I choose the gorgeous beach-view suite, giving them special instructions to arrange for a cake on the 29th of March.

“Not a big one, of course, just for the three of us,” I request the amiable lady on the phone. “It’s my birthday.” Suddenly I’m grinning from ear to ear.

“Oh sure, Ma’m!” she says enthusiastically. “We hope you have a great one.”

“Thank you,” I smile.  And swear inwardly to make the day a great one, no matter what.

Enough with the moping. I’ll make my own happiness now.

Chapter 33: Love vs Marriage


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Dec 15, 2013

Nobody really understands.

The advice flows thick and fast; consoling words with all the soothing quality of Dettol burning on your wound—without the disinfectant effect. You are an aberration, a freak, a phenomenon unfathomable. They cannot figure you out. Why do you pine so for your husband? You have your child, after all. Isn’t that amazing?

And you cannot for a single moment understand why these are the very people who most vehemently advocate marriage. I mean, by the same logic, why was there even the need of a husband in the first place—you had your parents after all.

The idea of ‘at least you have your child’ is entirely baffling. Is the child a replacement of your life partner? Is one person ever a replacement of another? Is one relationship ever a replacement of another? Each person, each relationship holds its own unique place in the carefully stacked-up pyramid of life. You cannot extricate a single one from the structure without causing all others to trip over each other and come tumbling down in a heap.

But far worse are the annoyed, accusatory voices jabbing at you from all corners.

“Why do you need to keep harping on this?”

“Get a job, get something to occupy you, get your mind on other stuff.”

“These things happen.”

And to quote a relative: “Well, this is entirely normal. It’s been happening since the ages. Men go away for work and women stay at home and bring up the kids.” And these aren’t even the words of an old man (so you could pass them off as generation gap) but a young man, about my age.

It hurts.

Your pain, your anger, your rankling hollow loneliness. All of that is normal.

Because why should love be of any importance once you’re married?

Let me illustrate: why don’t you ever laugh at or feel annoyed with Romeo and Juliet? Shirin and Farhad? Even Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy? Why does the world find joy in eternal romances, why does your heart weep for star crossed lovers that couldn’t unite?

If this were a typical, pre-marriage love story, no-one would bat an eyelid over the self-destructive obsessiveness brought on by separation. Nobody questions Devdas and Paro, nobody questions Laila and Majnu. Come to think of it, nobody even questions Bella and Edward.  Because we all believe it’s quite alright to push the world aside and fight a desperate battle for love—as long as you’re not married to that love, of course.

Marriage is supposed to work as sanitiser, disinfectant, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic combined. Whatever was in your system ought to be cleansed by now, and you must be engaged in a power tussle:  sharing lame husband/wife jokes with other friends, pining for singlehood and regretting the knot. So, of course, it becomes difficult to digest that a married couple could be immune to the anti-inflammatory shots and remain pulsating in a whirlwind of classically romantic madness.

No, I cannot just ‘let go and walk ahead’, ‘shake off the past and move into the future’. I cannot ‘find something else to focus upon’, to accept this as ‘part of life’ and just get on with it.

I refuse to focus on anything that declares this as an acceptable way to live. Refuse to settle for second best.

You might call me obstinate. But the world needs to know that it isn’t okay. That it is not supposed to be “what’s done.” That it shouldn’t be what’s done.

That I won’t ever consider it normal and buckle down to it. I would dig my heels in and refuse to budge. This was my protest.

It almost killed me.

Chapter 31: Because life never stands still


babysteps

September 1, 2013

Almost every couple I have seen values their first child’s first birthday as one of the most important events in their lives, and it’s fittingly celebrated— perhaps even a little over the top— with great pomp and show. Like the first wedding anniversary, the first birthday of your child is one of those fist-bumping, high-fiving, “we did it!” moments that you share, revelling in the fact that you made it this far through a life-altering change, and did a pretty good job of it, too.

I am, perhaps, the world’s only mother who doesn’t want to celebrate her first child’s first birthday. At all.

I had been waiting for this day. Imagining it. Replaying it in my mind. Over and over again.

“Hasan’s first Birthday!” I had been thinking all this while “It will be so wonderful to celebrate it together in Oman.”

I had been so sure. So full of energy, so full of hopes. And now, slowly, reality was spreading its cold pallor over my heart. I did not want to celebrate anything, leave alone this first birthday that served as a mocking reminder of one whole year of my life just laid waste.

Hasan’s nani, his true mother for all purposes, has her heart set on it, of course. She makes it a point to remind me everyday: “You’re not his mother, I am. You’re just his nanny appointed to take care of him while I’m not at home.” And that statement is one of the high points of my everydays, because it warms my heart to see my mother with this little imp of a boy. He has wound her round his little finger.  And he has a perfectly hilarious name for her. Not nani, nanna, naniammi or any of the names we address our grandmas with. He calls her “Office.” Just that.  Office.

Why? Well, it’s simple, isn’t it: She goes to office everyday, so she’s ‘office’! Can’t argue with a child’s logic, can you?

It actually originated thus: Hasan was all of 10 months and already yakking away. (He may not have inherited his father’s Olympic walking skills, but he’s certainly inherited his mom’s talking ones.) And he began addressing his grandma with the perfectly innocuous ‘Nani.’ During the day, when she would be at work, Hasan would knock at the bolted door of her room, and ask me questioningly: Nani? And I would tell him, “Nani Office gayi hain,” which he interpreted not as NANI office gayi hain, but as NANI OFFICE gayi hain. So from Nani, she became ‘Nani Office’ and then the ‘Nani’ was dropped for convenience, and only ‘Office’ remained.

{Literal translation of the above Hindi lines: “Nani has gone to office” which Hasan interpreted as “Nani Office has gone.” Something to do with the Hindi sentence structure of Subject Object Verb, as opposed to the English structure of Subject Verb Object.}

And ‘Office’ cannot have enough of her little Noddy. He has filled that gaping void, that scary black hole in her heart left behind first by the death of her husband, and then by the death of her father. My grandfather passed away just this year, around the time Hasan was 4 months old.

I can see well that the Lord wanted me to be here for her. It isn’t about me all the time—this is about her sanity, about her shattered heart. I do see that. And yet, I can’t be happy about it.

Hasan’s youngest uncle—my brother in law— serves as a father figure for most of the birthday party, holding Hasan’s hand while cutting the cake, entertaining the kids and joking around. Hasan seems happy, he is intensely attached to his chachu.

And I… I am once again reminded of my childhood.

My sister and me, we often found— in various uncles and grandfathers— new fathers to fill our tiny hearts’ yearning. It was our mother who was doomed to be alone forever.

Oct 9, 2013

Another month, another milestone. Tomorrow is the third anniversary of my marriage.

As the days move ahead, time grows heavy, leaden. Refusing to pass. Hanging heavy upon the ceiling, watching me from the rotating blades of the fan.

Hanging dark and grey upon the sky.

Hope sits quietly in a dark corner.

7:00 pm

My father in law barges into my room, all smiles, and asks Hasan and me to come outside.

“There’s an amazing gift waiting for you outside!” he beams.

For one glorious moment, my spirits surge for I feel that Sajjad has flown down impromptu just to give me this surprise. I rush towards the door, and then a small voice in my head reminds me of all the eager anticipations of previous months that proved to be just huge let-downs. And I don’t want to end up that way again. I take a deep breath, calm myself, and move slowly ahead, hoping to take whatever it is with equanimity, sans extreme emotion of either kind.

I open the door. And there stands Sajjad.

The normal me, the impetuous, impulsive me would have erupted with joy at the sight of his face. Ironically, though, I have calmed myself so well that I am indifferent. I muster a smile broad enough to make him feel I am happy. But I feel angry at myself for ruining this moment.

Sometimes we are so scared of disappointment that we shut ourselves off from extreme joy. You know, that famous line—‘it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.’ It is. It is indeed. To know a joy so pure, so unadulterated, to know an emotion that springs from the depth of your heart—to have been through all of it is worth the heartbreak.

When you are open to great joy, you are also vulnerable to great pain. But if you shut yourself off, you feel neither joy nor pain. And I, for one, do believe that joy is always worth the pain.

11: 40 pm

“Hey, I left my laptop back in the car,” Sajjad says suddenly. “Just let me get it out.”

“Okay.” I say. I suspect he has something up his sleeve.

And he does. He returns to the room with a beaming smile, a lovely bouquet in his hand.

“Happy Anniversary, sweetheart,” he says.

And it is. It is.

Oct 10, 2013

I’m wondering what Sajjad has planned for today. But generally, knowing him, I haven’t kept my hopes up high. However, he spends the entire morning and afternoon with his parents, and I am nowhere in the picture. I mean I am in the picture, of course, but when you’re meeting your guy after 5 months you want more than just sitting with his parents and listening to them talk.

I know they’re meeting their son after 5 months too. But again, I can’t reconcile myself to it. Over the past one year, I have found myself resenting my in laws more and more. And it is entirely undeserved.

When we were in Delhi, Sajjad and I used to make a trip to Aligarh every fortnight. I knew that was his parent-bonding time, and for those 48 hours we completely detached ourselves from each other. My folks live in the same city, so I used to go spend time with them, too. It was a perfect arrangement. But everything is haywire now.  After 5 months of being away, he has come home to both of us—to his wife and parents—and we’re both vying for his time. And because it’s our anniversary, I sort of expect my share to be larger, just this once.

Afternoon turns to evening and I’m hoping Sajjad will take me out for dinner. We do go out. But guess where? To buy new upholstery fabric for the sofa in my in-laws’ drawing room. Apparently, nothing is special today, it’s just another day.

And then my mom rings me up. “Listen, are you going out somewhere with Sajjad?”

“No mummy.” I tell her briefly.

“Then I’m taking you both out to dinner. To Fazle Kareem, that new restaurant you’ve been wanting to try so much.” She’s super enthusiastic. I feel a wave of warm feeling for my mother. And then go and tell Sajjad.

He nods, but first we need to go buy that sofa-fabric. Because no other day except the anniversary of our wedding is perfectly auspicious for buying upholstery, of course.

After one hour, we’ve bought nothing. Because nobody could come to a consensus.

We head back home. I’m waiting for Sajjad to inform his parents about our plans.

Nothing.

I glare at him. He’s immersed in his smartphone. I nudge his foot. He looks up at me blankly and asks “What?” I grit my teeth. And then my mom in law, who’s been watching this charade out of the corner of her eye, asks me what the matter is.

“Well…” I say hesitantly, “Mummy wants to take us both out to dinner.” And then, because I am super irritated, I blurt out, “But he won’t tell you anything of course. He will make ME say it every time.”

My mother in law laughs. She is a kind woman, generally cool about things. “Is that all?” she says. “Of course you should go. And it makes no difference whether he tells me or you tell me,” she smiles kindly at me. Yes, I know. But if you’re an Indian bahu you know how much easier it is for your husband to communicate things to your in-laws than it is for you. Doesn’t matter if they’re kind, sweet and everything. They’re still unpredictable, and you never know when your words might be met with a cold silence.

We do go out and celebrate… but I am confused.  I cannot fathom this man who has come all the way from another country to spend time with me, to spend with me the day that we were united body and soul, and then finds it absolutely appropriate to spend it buying sofa fabrics and being absorbed in his smartphone. Or maybe, I’m just being a ‘woman’, as men tend to say. Never satisfied.

Oct 13, 2013

Indira Gandhi National Airport, New Delhi

This is it. He’s going back. Again. Without us. Without me.

For the past five days, I had been putting it off—you know, thinking about this moment. I had been blindly telling myself that we’d fly off with him this time—happily into the sunset. And now, we’re here. At the airport. And he’s the only one flying off, once again. My father in law is trying to make this a happy farewell like last time; he’s clicking pics of us three together. But a lot has changed since last time. There’s none of the euphoric “it’s almost done!” feeling, none of the anticipatory glee. I can barely smile for the photographs.

Sajjad finally hugs his dad and his youngest brother, kisses Hasan, and for a very brief moment, looks into my eyes and holds my hand. For him to do this in front of his dad means a huge thing, since his family has impossibly strict codes about public displays of affection. You can’t hold your wife’s hand in the presence of elders. But he does that now, and I clutch it as tight as I can, for that one fleeting moment. And then I must let go.

I must let him go. The man who completes ‘us’, the one person who makes me feel like I am home.

I’ve been homeless for a year now.

We head back slowly to the car, and I can’t see where I am stepping. The future has clouded over, the path ahead is darkened, and blankly I step into the darkness, not knowing where I am going.  But go on one must, for this is life. It never stands still.

Chapter 30: The Olympic Baby


Latest research published in a reputable American journal reveals that babies that start walking as early as 9-10 months are 90% more likely than their peers to be extremely athletic, going on to win World Championships and at least one medal in the Olympic Games in their lifetime.

OB

Image Courtesy: The Times

You didn’t really believe that, did you? Because I just made it up. Though if you did, even for a second, then congratulations! You have already been successfully brainwashed into bringing up The Olympic Baby.

August 2013

Most people tell you that the hardest portion of bringing up a child is the first three months post the birth, before the baby learns to sleep all night through. Don’t you believe them. There’s another part of child-rearing giving this one a run for its money—a very, very close competitor: helping the toddler learn to walk. This has to be the most hair-raising part of the child’s development chart, especially when you live in a home like mine, which must surely be featured in the ‘Good Homes’ Magazine—just to warn everyone else what their home must NEVER look like.

(I haven’t properly introduced you to the Addams Family yet, have I? Well, that is for another time, another post.)

The state of my home has to do with my maternal family’s undying belief that everything must be within arm’s length of wherever you are. So for instance, you don’t have to walk all the way to a water cooler or jug or the fridge for water; every room has its own permanently situated jugs and water coolers. And first aid kits, and little boxes for spices, and little boxes for extra sugar, and salt and pepper shakers, and so on and so forth.

And every little bit of furniture and home décor items—even the broken ones—that we had possessed when our father was with us.

My mother has a bit of a Miss Havisham affliction—refusing to part with old, broken things, setting them up as reminders of an age long gone, an age she refuses to let go—clutching it desperately to her heart, and falling apart even as it all does, too.  It is chaos of the most carefully curated kind, the kind that you can’t change or set right, because someone’s heartbeat connects to it. Because what seems like chaos to you are the salvaged pieces of someone’s once-glorious, now-shattered love story.

But now, place a baby inside this carefully created chaos, a toddler learning to walk and curious about everything that seems so new and amazing—not to mention delicious, for this toddler just needs to put ev-e-ry thing in his mouth—the less it looks like food, the better. And you have a sure-shot recipe for disaster.

So I spend my days running from table to table, spice box to spice box, water jug to water jug, trying to keep my son from wrecking the house—or himself. At night he hollers for milk, and because milk is the only thing you can’t keep right inside the room, I rush out to the fridge to get it. By the time I begin measuring out the milk for rewarming, Hasan is crawling out the bed, and, standing up with the support of mesh-doors that open and shut through a spring, attempting to come out to me. And because he can’t yet handle a spring-door, he pushes it open but doesn’t know how to rush out before it bangs in his face. Which it always does. And so this results in me rushing to pick him up before he gets to the doors, rewarming the milk, measuring it and pouring it in his feeder, all with one hand—while the other hand holds him balanced firmly on my hip. At this rate, I could actually perform in a circus.

You might ask me this: why is he not in a crib? Well, for one, this is India—children sleep in their parents’ beds, and for another, Hasan’s crib has been put away for his own good. Let me explain: this boy is just about 11 months old, can’t walk on his own, only with support, but every single time he is put in the crib, he hoists himself to his full height, perches on his toes, and through some marvellous feat of gymnastics, manages to haul himself right over the edge, landing face down on the ground.

This happened a month ago: I have just had this brainwave and created my blog. I am sitting in the verandah, trying to type while Hasan sits in the crib near me and keeps grabbing at my laptop. I push the crib further away, and now he stretches out to grab the little spice box sitting on the verandah table. (Yes, there’s one here too.) I move the box away from his reach and focus on my writing.

Suddenly, there is silence. Guided by the ominous feeling involving a silent toddler, my head jerks up instinctively— and I dive through the air, just in time to catch him mid-flight over the crib’s edge: upside down with his head on my palm, inches away from that coveted spice box.

Now you know why the crib was discarded. And now you also know why it isn’t just the first three months that top the difficulty level.

November 2013

13 months. Hasan is 13 months old and still not completely able to walk without support. You’d think you’d have known by now the worst parts about the child learning to walk. But you haven’t. After all the running, balancing, diving and retrieving that you do day in and day out, this right here is the worst part of your child learning to walk—and turning out a slow learner:

“One year old and still can’t walk! What? His father was already walking without support at 10 months!”

“Oh his dad was 10 months old when he began to walk!”

“He hasn’t been given proper oil massages.”

“He hasn’t been fed enough eggs.”

“What! 13 months and can’t walk! His father was…..” Yes! Yes! I know! How many more people will inform me about it?

I know that his father was the poster boy of The Olympic Babies. You know, the kind of babies that are so smart they walk, talk, kick, jump, read, write—practically do everything so early they’re sure to win an Olympic Gold in their lifetime—or at least a Nobel Prize. So why don’t they?

We’ve become so accustomed to incentive-linked target achievement on the deadline, we treat our children the same way. Targets to be met on time. But then, this isn’t a recent phenomenon. This race for the Olympic Baby has been on for generations— go back farther and farther in time, and you’d find it intact. The ‘my baby is better than yours’ complex. The subtly malicious way, actually, to make a mother feel bad about her efforts. ‘My mothering is better than yours.’ That’s the real message, from every direction.

The only kind of mothering that’s truly better than the other is the one that creates a happy, confident baby. The baby that feels secure, protected and subconsciously aware of his parents’ belief in him—enough to try new mischiefs; the baby that has ample space to grow as slow or as fast as she likes. For a baby, the world is fascinating, sparkling, jaw-droppingly awesome. The faster the train hurtles along the tracks, the faster the scenery goes crashing past, and you miss out on all the glorious details of the splendid world outside.

Why rush?

The cherub that crawls through the garden finds all the hidden treasures…

Chapter 29: “You don’t need a husband, darling. You need a maid.”


Ch 29

January 5, 2013

Sitaram Bhartia Institute of Science and Research

Every three months after Hasan’s birth, I used to come to Delhi for a couple of days to get his vaccination done at the hospital where he was born. During my pregnancy we’d volunteered to be part of a research in which babies’ growth charts were tracked over the period of one year. So until Hasan turned one, every three months they assessed him for mental and physical development. Usually, Sajjad always accompanied me for vaccinations and such, but this one time he had an important meeting in office which he couldn’t skip. I had to go alone with the baby—and I was perfectly ok with that. (I don’t consider myself a damsel in distress, remember?)

What I hadn’t realised, though, was that it’s one thing to be an independent woman doing your stuff and travelling alone, and quite another to be a woman with a child travelling alone. To top it all, I was carrying Hasan in my arms with a hospital folder clutched in one hand. No baby stroller or anything to help me out. More fool me.
Things went pretty well until I dropped the folder while getting up from my seat and the jerk sitting next to me wouldn’t even pick it up. His wife who was nursing a baby in her lap nudged him twice, but he was way too busy with his cell phone to respond. I somehow managed to balance the baby against my shoulder, supported with one hand, and picked the folder up. The wife smiled apologetically at me. I smiled back. Not her fault that her husband was a total jerk.

After I got Hasan vaccinated, I had to get myself vaccinated too—against cervical cancer. Sonia, my doctor, had prescribed vaccination for it soon after Hasan’s birth. She, however, wasn’t available that day and a nurse came to inject me. Now let me remind you all that this was winter and getting a shot meant pulling up several layers of clothing—in my case an extra one because of my Abaya. So far, so good. But pulling all the sleeves down proved quite a challenge, and the baby who’d been lying quietly by the side so far just decided it’s time to start bawling. Amid all the pulling and the bawling, my hand smacked the folder from the table top onto the floor—with all its contents splattering out.

The door whooshed open and another woman entered the room with her baby—and a maid in tow. She took one look and rushed to help me out.

“Thanks so much,” I murmured gratefully. “It’s tough handling a little one alone! You see my husband had an important meeting today and he couldn’t accompany me here…” I was ashamed at being so flustered and clumsy.

The woman, cool as cucumber in her elegant dress and perfect hair, smiled at me sagely and pronounced a line I’ll never forget:

“You don’t need a husband, darling. You need a maid.”

 

August 1, 2013

It’s been about a fortnight since Sajjad left for Oman and now my mother has managed to arrange for me a ‘maid’. She isn’t really a maid but a live-in babysitter of sorts and a total godsend.

Respite had already reached me around the time Hasan turned 6 months old—the editor of the newspaper I was earlier working with had rang me up to ask if I’d like to write freelance for them.

Would a bee like honey? You wouldn’t have to ask, but if somebody’s asking I guess nothing could be better. So I had my Shelf Life column back, and I was doing literary reviews and criticisms once again. Ah, the relief. Like being submerged for so long you’re just about to give up…and then your head breaks surface and your lungs swell and sputter at the sheer ecstasy of taking in gulpfuls of air. Ahhhh…………..

But then writing a column every week, and the reading of book after book which the column required brought its own set of problems—not the least of which was a super-attention seeking baby.

Hasan has been born with the will, stubbornness and attention-seeking tactics of no other child I’ve seen. Let me elaborate.

Most mothers like to cover up with a dupatta or a piece of cloth while they’re nursing the baby, and I’ve seen them comfortably chatting up other family members while the baby suckles. Not little Highness Hasan. He will bawl his head off if I try to cover his face while feeding, he will kick up an awful fuss if I do not maintain absolute eye contact with him ALLL through the feeding, and he will petulantly refuse to drink altogether if I start conversing with someone else. When His Highness Hasan feeds, his mom dare not engage with someone else. Phew!

But wait, there’s more.

You cannot leave him alone for even a minute. Even when he was two months old, he would keep waking during his sleep and look around to ensure he wasn’t alone. If he was—woe unto the entire household. I was harrowed to the extent of not being able to even go to the loo in peace. If he was in a cradle he would show the least bit of interest in a toy—2 minutes tops, before bawling his head off on realising there was no one sitting by the side. The outcome of all this was that I spent all day sitting with him, totally at the mercy of his whims. His Royal Highness Hasan.

Several people advised me to let him cry for some time, and then he’d grow used to being alone. And I did try it—I went for a bath leaving him in his pram in the room. And he cried non-stop for 20 minutes flat, and was still crying when I came out.

After that, every time I was alone and had to take a bath I would wheel his pram right into the bathroom.

But at least I was having a bath—if I was at my in laws place I used to just pour water all over myself and rush out.

Is there any wonder I hated motherhood more times than I loved it?

And now I have this chance to write once again and I couldn’t let this baby walk all over this too. I try writing with him lying close-by, but  after six months a baby starts belly-crawling and rolling over and—wouldn’t you just know it—all that he wants is the laptop mommy is working on. Or the book she is reading. Or the pen she is writing with. And it has to be that very thing and no other.

And so I wanted to kiss Shabnam’s hands when she arrived. Yes, the maid.

Suddenly life feels so much lighter. I can read in peace, I can write in peace. I can bathe in peace; I can urinate and defecate in peace.

I have someone to alternate the nappy changing with. Or the bottle feeding with. And most of all, if I am unwell or dead tired, I have someone to call out groggily at, “Please make Hasan’s bottle this time… I’m dead”

I can go out now with Shabnam sharing the handling of Hasan. I can visit friends without Hasan bawling for attention, I can go shopping without wondering how on earth to do it with a baby in my arms. She has taken half the load off.

That half which is supposed to be shared by the baby’s father. My husband.

Somewhere in my head a voice echoes: “You don’t need a husband, darling. You need a maid.”

Yes, Yes and Yes. And No.

Yes you need a maid. But you don’t need a husband?

Yes, you only need a maid if all you require is a load-sharing caregiver for the child. Yes, you only need a maid if the child’s emotional, mental and physical development is not in the least bit affected by the near-constant absence of one parent.

And yes, you most certainly only need that maid if you’re a lesbian—assuming that the maid is one too, and she completely reciprocates your feelings.

Because if you’re just a heterosexual woman with a heterosexual woman’s needs and desires—including those pertaining to close companionship and emotional as well as physical warmth—you most definitely need that darned husband.

Or if you do not believe in the institution of marriage and are not dependent upon the marital bond for the fulfilment of your desires then I say, thumbs up to you. Go ahead, darling, you just need a maid.

Chapter 27: The ghost of George Bernard Shaw


July 28, 2013

there-are-two-tragedies-in-life

 

I’d read this quote in the unlikeliest of places, when I was about 12 years old: An Archie comic. For some reason, the line haunted me all those years, like a symphony that makes you cry for no reason at all. Perhaps, in a cosmic irony of sorts, it was a portent of things to come.

It’s been almost a year now that we’ve been leading separated lives. Weeks slipping into fortnights, days creeping into months.

A popular post on Facebook has a line that goes like this: if you want to know the value of nine months, ask an expecting mother. I’d been every bit through those tedious nine months, but I can give you my word for it, these ten were worse.

Ten months of uncertainty, of standing still or vacillating like a pendulum, of not knowing whither your life was headed. Of the myriad horrible states to be in, I have now come to believe that the worst is having to wait. Wait, at the mercy of another. Wait, without an action plan. No matter how terrible your condition, as long as you’re battling it—strategizing and waging war—you know you can make things better…somehow. But this…this waiting without doing, waiting without knowing, without a decision to speak of… It’s not something I’d ever done, not something I was ever used to. I had always planned my life far in advance.

Until, of course.

At some point in your life, there will always come an ‘until’. That will be the day you’d know that perhaps, destiny exists. In more ways than one.

As it does now. After ten long months of agony, suddenly everything falls into place. Sajjad just got his visa.

The relief washing over me is palpable. As I wave goodbye to the love of my life at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, I have none of the nervous sinking in my stomach that accompanies lovers bidding farewell. My heart is at ease with the deepest conviction that in a couple of months I’d be there with him. And a sissy I never was.

My father in law would later remark that I’d been “Daler” about this—fearless. Intrepid. Not batting an eyelid. No teary goodbyes and no vacant silences. I was my usual, cheerful self.

My sister in law’s husband, too, works in a separate country and she wanted to know how I could be so cool about it. I didn’t want her to feel bad—she’d been separated from her guy just two months post marriage—and pregnant too. I choose my words carefully, deciding not to dwell on my hopes for the future.

“I’m going to pretend I’m still single,” I tell her. Writing, shopping, parties, weddings and hanging out with friends—there’s still a lot to do! And then she asks me the question. That question.

“What about Hasan?”

“Ah, Hasan!” I’m still very cock-a-whoop, such is the levitating power of fresh hope. “Well I’m going to pretend he’s my brother! I can look after a baby brother, can’t I, and still be single!”

Yes, I actually said that—you needn’t look so aghast.

When people are happy, joyful, hopeful, they can dream up the craziest scenarios.

And I’m happy. Really happy. It’s not just the promise of being together at last. It’s also the promise of uncovering new secrets together, discovering new joys. That has always been our ‘thing’. It’s what we’re best at.

Every couple has this little ‘thing’ with each other, the little thing that is their glue. This is ours. We’re not Romeo and Juliet, Laila and Majnu—or even Raj and Simran, though lord knows Sajjad did tons of work for the “ladkiwale” on his own shaadi ! (Anyone who’s seen DDLJ a hundred times knows what I’m talking about. For my non-Indian readers, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge is arguably the greatest Bollywood love story of all time.) We’re hardly any of those eternal, evergreen couples because Sajjad is mostly the guy who’d start cracking jokes during a romantic moment. In fact, you can sort of trust him to spoil the most romantic moments with his corny sense of humour (or his vacant, distracted silences, which are the worst). Nope, the maximum supply of romance here is from my side.

But what he brings to this relationship is far greater than your stereotypical candies, hearts and roses. He brings a childlike quality to ‘us’. Like two children playing, sharing, jostling, bickering, whining and getting along all the same. We’re not the best lovers, perhaps, but we’re best friends.

I know every girl wishes for Prince Charming. I did, too. But it’s sort of lucky, in a weird way, if you end up with Peter Pan. He’s never going to grow old.

And so, skippity-hop, hoppity-skip, this is what is our relationship. ‘Doing’ stuff together. Exploring. Imagining. Creating. Experiencing. We are a team.

Like Lisbon and Jane.

Teresa Lisbon and Patrick Jane.

Sajjad is the one who got me hooked onto the Mentalist. But then he’s had me hooked onto a zillion things—I don’t know how, but he knows exactly where my ‘hook’ lies. During the early days we used to trade with each other: I picked books for him to read and he picked movies for me to watch—Hollywood movies. I was totally the Hindi movie gal, and the handful of Hollywood movies I’d seen were the Jurassic Park and The Lion King types. You get the gist—kiddie movies. Sajjad was…well, he wasn’t much of a reader—still isn’t. But the hand-picked selections clicked for both of us.

The Mentalist falls into the very category.

From the start, Patrick Jane reminded me of Sajjad.

They’re actually not the least bit similar. Sajjad isn’t glib like Jane, nor is he the smooth talking ex-imposter. He’s not defiant or rebellious either. But right from Season One, Jane reminded me of my man. Why? Well, for one, ‘neath all that cheery exterior lies the core of his character—his undying, obsessive commitment to his dead wife, his refusal to take off that wedding ring or to move past his little daughter, long passed on from this world.

And then his compassion for the week, his solidarity to his team and—most of all—the way he treats Teresa Lisbon. He drives her mad, defies her, breaks every rule and yet… there’s something about the two of them that makes them great together. He really, truly cares for her. (And don’t forget the exasperating sense of humour.)

Lisbon’s the woman with the tough exterior, the need to always be in control, always be on top of things. She’s the one who wouldn’t admit to her insecurities, and he… for some reason, he’s always the source of her calm.

Now, of course, everyone knows how the series ended. But long, long before anyone even guessed how Season Seven would go, I would always tell Sajjad—I’m Lisbon and you’re Jane.

It’s the way he exasperates her. The way he infuriates her. The way she expects him to be ‘typically Jane’—never doing what she would ask. But it’s also in the way that he makes her laugh—and surprises her precisely because it’s not what she expects. It’s in the way she knows he’s incorrigible—and indulges him nonetheless. What cosmic coincidence is it that for the first ten years of our relationship, my guy’s number was saved in my cell phone as “Incorrigible Sajjad”?

We’re a team—He and I. When we’re together, we do things better.

And that’s why I already have visions of my new home in an enchanting new country—irresistible, unknown lands for us to discover. A couple more months to go and we’d be celebrating Hasan’s first birthday together.

I hadn’t accounted for George Bernard Shaw, though, who chose this most inopportune moment to demonstrate his words from so,so long ago. There are, indeed, two tragedies in life. The first is to not get what you for so long desire. The other, of course, is to get it. Sigh.